Domestic Violence in Canada: Not Much Change, Less Reporting to Police

Here’s an interesting article about domestic violence in Canada (UPI, 1/27/11).  It’s interesting for a couple of reasons.  The first is that it contains an astonishing falsehood that I’ve emailed UPI about and requested a correction.  The second interesting item, I’ll get to later.

Canada’s statistical agency, Statistics Canada, has come out with a new survey of domestic violence here in our neighbor to the north and, much like a similar study done by the government of Scotland and published in December 2009, it contradicts a variety of assertions by domestic violence advocates.

But first, the UPI article claims that,

Of nearly 19 million Canadians abused by a spouse or domestic partner in 2009, 6.2 percent, or 1.2 million, reported being physically or sexually abused in the previous five years, Statistics Canada reported.

If you’re like me, when you read that alarms went screaming in your head.  “Nineteen million Canadians abused by a spouse or domestic partner” in a single year?  Wait a minute. 

So I checked with Statistics Canada’s population data and sure enough, in 2006, there were fewer than 26 million Canadians of all ages including about 10 million children who, pretty much by definition didn’t have a spouse or partner. 

Of course there are many, many other adults who don’t either, but even if they all did, that would leave 16 million partnered adults in 2006.  So, if the article’s claim were correct, every single one of those adults plus some would have been a victim of DV in 2009.  Needless to say, that’s bunk.

Here’s what the actual Statistics Canada document says:

Of the 19 million Canadians who had a current or former spouse in 2009, 6% reported being physically or sexually victimized by their partner or spouse in the preceding five years.

Ah!  Sure enough, 19 million total Canadians with a current or former spouse or partner, not 19 million who experienced DV. 

(It’s funny.  DV has always been one of those topics about which the wildest claims have been made.  Remember Katherine Hanson who informed us back in the 90s that violence is the leading cause of death among women.  That’s odd; the Centers for Disease Control think it’s heart disease and stroke followed by cancer.  Indeed, violence is nowhere in the top 15 causes of death to women.)

But beyond the astonishing inaccuracy of the article’s statement, if those incidents were spread equally over each of the five years, that would mean that 1.2% of those 19 million Canadians reported DV victimization each year. 

But according to surveys, not all incidents are reported to the police; in fact, only about one-fourth are.  So that would mean that about 4.8% of Canadians actually experience DV in a given year.  That’s amazingly similar to the 5% figure the Scottish government came up with.

Now to the second interesting thing in the article.  Statistics Canada found that the level of reporting of DV has decreased from 28% of incidents reported to the police in 2004 to 22% in 2009. 

Actually both of those statistics are interesting to me. 

The simple fact that the vast majority of people who’ve been involved in a DV incident don’t report it to the police strongly suggests certain things.  First, it suggests that the incidents aren’t very serious.  That’s certainly what Scots reported to their government.  There, only 20% of domestic violence incidents resulted in injury more serious than “a minor cut or bruise.”  About 60% resulted in no injury at all.

Second, it suggests that, whatever the nature of the incident, people don’t want the police and courts involved.  I’d say it means that they’d rather deal with it themselves than have the state involved.  And that in turn suggests that they don’t trust the state to do a good and effective job of addressing the situation.

In other words, about 75% of Canadians think that the whole idea that DV is a crime best addressed by police, courts, jails and DV intervention programs is suspect.

As I’ve said numerous times, I think they’re right.  As the Statistics Canada data suggest and the Scottish study and many others clearly show, most of what is called domestic violence is non-injurious, much of it is reciprocal and committed by people who were exposed to DV in childhood. 

To me, all that shouts for a different approach to most DV incidents and most people involved in them.  We’d do far better if we used criminal law to address only cases of DV in which significant injury occurred and left psychotherapy to deal with the rest.  If we did that, I feel certain that a lot more people would be willing to report DV incidents and admit to their own part in them.  That in turn would mean that they could get help instead of punishment which might result in an actual lowering of DV incidence.

The fact is that, generally speaking, people don’t want their intimate partners thrown in jail and court-ordered to stay away from their children and loved ones. 

That’s certainly the opinion of Harvard researcher Radha Iyengar in her study of mandatory arrest laws.  She found that mandatory arrest laws actually increase the chance of injury or death from DV.  Why?  Because when a person weighs the arrest of his/her partner against the likelihood of further abuse, they opt for the latter.  In short they, like Canadians, don’t think the police and criminal justice system is the answer to the problem.

That brings me to my last point which is that, as time goes on, more and more Canadians seem to be concluding the exact same thing.  That’s why the percentage of people reporting DV incidents is going down – hardly a ringing endorsement of the status quo.

Again, as with the Scottish study, there are real, constructive conclusions that can be drawn from the Statistics Canada data.  These data point the direction that policy on DV should take, i.e. toward a mental health approach and away from a criminal law approach except in truly serious incidents.

Will policy makers take note and start to craft initiatives that have a chance of success?  Or will they remain in thrall to an understanding of and approach to DV that has proven itself over many years to be conceptually flawed and incompetent to solve the problem?

Addendum: Thanks to UPI for making the correction to its article.

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